Peace at Last: Reflections of my Dad’s Final Days

I lost my wonderful Dad this past Saturday night. It was the most difficult experience of my life watching him die a natural death during his last week. A week before he died he ate his last scrambled egg, and by the next day he didn’t want anything to drink aside from very small sips to keep down the inevitable dryness and choking. This is a biological reaction when the body is failing and is in the early stages of death.

As the week went along we noticed that Dad’s pulse rate went up gradually, yet his blood pressure was normal as was the oxygen level in his blood.  I wondered how long he could live with no nourishment. He told us how much he loved us and we had a lot of kisses. He has always been loving so this behavior was an extension of the man we knew and loved. As the days progressed he choked more often and found it harder to bring it up. Dying people can’t swallow over time and as they become increasingly dehydrated, they have less to swallow, so it’s a lot more concentrated than a healthy person’s saliva. We helped him get the “stuff” out of his mouth and I started to smell death a few days before he died.

We all cope with death differently.  My Mom kept telling my Dad that he looked good, and that everything would be OK. As the week passed, she changed her tune to thanking him for all the wonderful years and all the joy and love he had given her. They were married for 62 years which is so awesome!  Mom kept chattering to him and wiping his face to give him relief. It seemed to me he would rather have been left alone to be quiet for some of this time.

My brother, Steve, stood by and continued his toil to keep Dad comfortable by changing his adult diapers, cleaning him and finding ways to make his life more pleasant. His bedside manner was better than incredible. He gave my Dad such comfort, and had been caring for him every weekend since May 2008 earning him the title of Saint Steve.

In these last couple of weeks we shifted his body to prevent bed sores. He much preferred being on his back, but after a few days he seemed to be uncomfortable regardless of what position he was in. He had this odd restlessness where he wanted to rub his head and eyes quite often. I gradually realized that this was a form of anxiety and that pharmaceuticals could help this. It took me a couple of days to realize that this was anxiety and not just a nervous habit.

I had the honor of sitting with Dad the last night of his life. It was frustrating as by now his breathing was labored, and I wasn’t sure how often I could give him pharmaceuticals such as morphine. I was afraid to give it to him while he slept.  It was interesting that he could sleep at all in hindsight as he must have been so uncomfortable.  I think he took comfort when he heard my Mom’s rhythmic snoring, and he also knew I was sitting by him quietly with the lights out praying for him to be peaceful.

As soon as he roused at around 6:30 a.m., I gave him morphine and another anti-anxiety drug. He relaxed within 10 minutes, but had moved his face to resist the meds even though he could no longer hold his neck straight and didn’t have enough energy to talk at all. The hospice nurse told me that he probably thought I was attempting to feed him and he didn’t want anything.

I had such mixed emotions about giving dad morphine as I felt like I was killing him. Actually it brought him relief as he was able to breathe more regularly and it was calming. The very small amount that you give a person will not cause him to choke, and it will be absorbed by the gum tissue so you can give them morphine while they sleep. Hospice didn’t explain this to me until late in the game, else he would have been peaceful sooner than he was.

I learned that the human body’s ability to hold onto life is a strong instinct even while dying. Pharmaceuticals helped my dad relax so he could die peacefully. Another big help was the use of oxygen towards the end. We were lucky that my sister-in-law is a nurse and she knew about this. About 3 hours before he died his pulse was up to over 140+ beats per minute. Then it gradually slowed and his breathing became shallow and he died. Once his heart slowed, he lived only about 2 hours. We sat around his bedside at home as he died and that was very bonding.

We were very blessed to have my father in our lives. He was a giver his whole life even the day before he died. Early in his career he defended Japanese war criminals. He saved the US government millions of dollars in the 1950s and 1960s through procurement deals he negotiated with the Japanese, when millions of dollars was a lot of money. He continued his procurement work at the Pentagon until he retired in 1984. He was a religious man and helped the less fortunate in so many ways, helping orphanages in Yokohama, visiting prisoners of all sorts of description. What I really loved about him was his warmth and his uncanny ability to make each person he spoke to feel like they were so important.  He didn’t multi-task and gave a person his undivided attention. Many of us in this crazed world of social networking could take a lesson from my Dad.

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7 thoughts on “Peace at Last: Reflections of my Dad’s Final Days”

  1. Oh, Ellen,

    My prayerful thoughts are with you and your family. Your experience of the blessings and difficulties in being allowed to experience your father’s passing is so similar to my own when my dad died.

    Not only are you a beautiful reflection of the best traits of your father, you are a gifted writer. I am certain he is watching and smiling over you right now with great pride.



  2. Ellen,

    I was choked up just reading your account — you have all kinds of strength and I’m really glad you could be there for your dad. I’m sure having his family around him was a comfort and a blessing.

    Peace and love to you and your whole family,


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